Sunday, April 8, 2012

Block that cookie

Note: The tips that follow reference one or all of Firefox, Google Chrome (Chrome), or Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). Other browsers probably have similar features; but when I say “all,” I’m referring to all of these three. Examples come from recent versions of the browsers: Firefox 11, Chrome 18, and IE 8.

The good news is that you should be able to ameliorate a lot of the techniques to track you that web sites use. Much internet tracking is based on good old-fashioned web (html)  cookies. It’s easy to block cookies. Unfortunately, being followed by cookies is also vital to much of the productivity of the internet. They allow sites to remember who you are as you move from page-to-page; for example, from Add to cart to Continue shopping and back. They come in 2 basic flavors: first party and third party. (To find out about first and third parties, read our next post.) First party cookies are good to OK; but you might think twice about third party.

The easiest and most powerful way to protect yourself from tracking is by using a private browsing session. (instructions: next post). In this case, nothing, about your session stays on your computer when you close the browser. You can’t come back to a search or be automatically logged in at any site. You should always use private browsing on a computer you don’t control.

If that is too aggressive, your browser can control what it does with cookies. With greater or lesser ease (instructions: next post), you can usually tell the browser to block all cookies or only third party cookies. You can also accept cookies but tell your browser to throw them away at the end of the session. This gives you the advantages of using cookies; but websites won’t know about you the next time you go there. FireFox also allows you to choose your action for every cookie you’re given. This gets tedious fast, but is revealing as to how pervasive cookies are.

Another option is to choose a browser that you never sign to a site or fill out a form. Use another browser for your shopping, Gmail, or social networks. Financial transactions ideally should be transacted only in a private session. Although you trust your financial institution; you may be logged in, either temporarily or permanently, to another site which might benignly or maliciously have a small chance of tracking you there.

Unrelated to cookies; if you follow a link to a site, it knows where you came from and, if a search engine, what the search terms were. So if you got here by searching “Block that cookie” on Bing; Blogspot (a Google service) knows that. Although this form of tracking is relatively benign and primarily used by a site to fine tune its own advertising, you can avoid it by not clicking the link, but type it into another browser.

On the other hand, there are ways that your computer may be tracked that don’t rely on html cookies or a specific browser.

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